I hear America Singing in a Mask

American singing–a distinctively American style, not imitating formal styles from Europe–starts with white guys in blackface. The first distinctive American style of music, known to most people through virtually any Stephen Foster songs or a song like Dixie,originated in the minstrel show. There’s really no way around it: American popular music starts as the soundtrack of racial transgression and mockery.

The blackface tradition involved white people mocking black people in grotesque ways, but it also involved pathos and political satire. Blackface gave performers license: license to yearn for the lost or the forbidden, license to say things they couldn’t ordinarily say. There’s always a queasy, off-kilter quality to blackface, a feeling of the repressed struggling to return.

By 1900, black people also performed in blackface: it was a genere, a set of formal tricks or bits. Most famously, Bert Williams hit it big in 1913 with the excrutiatingly sad/funny song Nobody.











These posters are odd, to put it mildly. Some of them may show actual black people, some of them may show white people pretending to be black, but in both together “black” stands as a zone of the permissible, a carnival space: a place where ordinary rules fail.

No one made better use of what blackface enabled than Al Jolson. Twentieth century popular singing starts with Jolson, the most popular entertainer of the first half of the century, who had more number one hits than the Beatles. Jolson brought blackface to broadway, where he combined the makeup, the songs about the imaginary south, with a kind of desperate neediness, a willingness to do anything, anything, to please. Here’s Jolson singing Mammy in The Jazz Singer(1927)


Jolson plays “Jack Robin,” a character torn between his traditional jewish roots and his desire to sing what he calls “jazz,” which to him means songs like Mammy. In this scene his Russian Jewish mother listens admiringly as Jack sings about his black mammy in Alabamy. The Jolson hallmarks are all here–the intense energy, the unfiltered neediness: “personality” foregrounded rather than the music. It’s not the song, it’s the character signing it. But the character singing it is a Jewish guy being enabled to do things because he’s in blackface: the mommy-yearning, for example, is more acceptable with a mask on. Jolson did a lot to invent the modern celebrity by making his self, not his performance, the centerpiece; and his ability to craft a larger than life self depended partly on blackface, something the movie makes very clear. [1. Jolson did not always sing in blackface, but he was closely identified with it. Jolson was also no bigot–he worked to help bring black entertainers like Eubie Blake to Broadway, for example. In The Jazz Singer blackface enables him to be not jewish, but “American” at the same time that it lets him profess his love for his mother over his stern and unforgiving father.]

Jolson’s style–the heavy vibrato, the operatic emotionalism, the feel-my-pain/love me emotionalism, is still everywhere in American signing. Sammy Davis Jr. had Jolson’s neediness; or just think about Roy Orbison’s pop opera overstatement. Here are three really flagrant examples of Jolsonism in rock vocals:

Journey, Don’t Stop Believing

Styx, Come Sail Away

Creed, With Arms Wide Open

The warble, the mawkish, needy self importance reflect the worst of Jolson’s legacy.

Blackface also led directly to country music. I’ve posted on this before: here’s a 1928 recording of Lovesick Blues by “Emmet Miller and his Georgia Crackers.” Miller was a blackface performer famous for his “trick voice” and blackface schtick:

Emmett Miller, Lovesick Blues

And here’s Hank Williams singing the same song.

Hank Williams, Lovesick Blues

It’s astonishing that a style of singing now “coded” so unambiguously white should have originated in the minstrel show. Or maybe it’s no more astonishing than the fact that white southerners marched off to die singing Dixie, a song written to be performed by whites in blackface.

We can see the black face tradition all over the place–in cartoons, for example: in Bugs Bunny’s rubbery wisecracking anarchy (check out minute 1 of the link). Minstrelsy has complicated effects on popular culture.

Compare these three versions of Dinah, which was written in 1925 and quickly became a pop hit. Written for Eddie Cantor, who frequently performed in blackface, it has the minstrel-ish fake southern nostalgia.


Is there anyone finer
In the state of Carolina?
If there is and you know her
Show her to me.

Got those Dixie eyes blazin’
How I love to sit and gazin’
To the eyes of Dinah Lee.

Every night why do I
Shake with fright?
Cause my Dinah might
Change her mind about me.

Oh, Dinah
Should you wander to China
I would hop an ocean liner
Just to be with Dinah Lee.


The first version is Louis Armstrong, from 1933. This clip shows you why he’s undeniably a great artist and why he’s slightly embarrassing.

Armstrong takes the song at a very fast tempo, and comes in hard on the “one” of each measure: DInah! FInah! CaroLINA! It has a strong sense of the beat, but in a loose way. That looseness, the willingness to mess with the beat or the lyrics, partly came out of the irreverence of the minstrel tradition.

Musicians will often talk about playing “behind the beat” or “on top of the beat” or “pushing,” playing slightly ahead of the beat. A good example of playing “behind the beat” is any of the Memphis soul music of the 60s, which usually had a “lazy backbeat.” Here’s a great example: Al Green’s Love and Happiness.

The snare drum hits on 2 and 4 (the backbeat) of the 1,2,3,4 pulse, but it feels like it’s barely making it on time, which is why that song has such a sexy groove. It’s played way “behind the beat.” Compare it to ACDC doing You Shook Me All Night Long, which is right on top of the beat or even pushing, that is, slightly ahead of the beat.[1. Al Green makes you want to make love: ACDC makes you want to pump your fist in the air and get drunk.]

Armstrong was famous for his ability to sing and play “behind the beat.” It’s what gives his music a simultaneously relaxed and urgent quality, the quality of “swing.” In Dinah Armstrong alternates between being right on top of the beat (“oh baby: every night/why do I/shake with fright”) and behind the beat (“I’d hop an ocean linah, yeaaah”), between pushing and easing. Compare his version to a version Al Jolson recorded late in his career, in the late 40s:

Al Jolson, Dinah

Jolson is a great singer, with a rich voice and a really distinctive timbre, and here, twenty years past his prime, he’s less brassy than in Mammy. He also sings behind the beat, sometimes, and ad libs (“the name of this tune is”): it’s that loose quality of almost parody that let him call himself a “jazz” singer and that connected him to the carnivalesque quality of minstrelsy. But Jolson doesn’t “swing,” even with the band’s arrangement trying to get him to.

He and Armstrong have some common roots in the minstrel tradition, the muggery, the exuberance. Armstrong even wrote, in his autobiography, that as a young boy, selling charcoal for a living “most of the time I looked like Al Jolson when he used to get down on his knees and sing Mammy.” Both were brash, with the license to irreverence the minstrel tradition conferred.

Armstrong’s solo quotes from a pop song of the day, Exactly Like You, and then from “The Snake Charmer Song,” also known as “The Streets of Cairo.”[1. This tune was written more or less spontaneously by the promoter Sol Bloom for the 1893 Columbia exposition in Chicago, part of a hoked-up fairground orientalism.] Armstrong’s quotation is funny and witty, and gently mocked Dinah’s roots in show-biz old south nostalgia. But it has a carnivalesque, clowning, minstrel quality too, and like Jolson, Armstrong makes himself the thing, not the song. Armstrong, in my opinion, is one of America’s greatest artists. But his roots in the minstrel tradition are pretty undeniable.

Armstrong and Jolson had a “hot” style: loud, projective. Just as FDR figured out that with a microphone you could drop the windy style of the whistle stop speech, and establish an intimate relationship with the listener, so Bing Crosby realized that backing off and simmering down could produce a new kind of singing style.

Crosby has maybe the most famous version of Dinah: his version is still the most popular on Itunes: here one take on Youtube, Crosby and Eddie Lang.

Crosby sings it very straight in his characteristic mellow, relaxed baritone, then he scats it up, something he got from Armstrong. Crosby has a lot of Armstrong’s relaxed sense of time and often credited Armstrong as his inspiration. He comes in “behind the beat” most of the time; but when he improvises he jumps right on top of the beat, one of the reasons why his “scat” improvisation is so much less compelling than Armstrong’s.

What’s distinctive about Crosby is the way he cooled out the overheated quality of the minstrel show. He started out singing like Jolson but the mic let him back off, and by this point he’s too cool to shout. Although he sometimes appeared in blackface, and has roots in the minstrel tradition, he replaced the queasy, anxiousness of blackface with a distanced and ironic stance. In this Youtube clip, the minstrel tradition lives on, in the black guy popping the shoeshine rag. But Crosby here condescends to it, literally looking down. He doesn’t have the neediness or the yearning. Crosby wasn’t black, or Jewish; though raised Catholic, he never experienced that same uncertainty about his place in American life that Jolson or Armstrong would have felt. He sings like he’s entitled.

From Crosby you get Frank Sinatra, and any number of breathy singers who croon in an intimate style. You get maybe as a cultural “stance” Bogart and hardboiled detectives: ironic detachment. You get maybe also Lester Young and Miles Davis and cool. Jolson lives on American Idol, or Glee: the Broadway meets blackface style: from Jolson’s stance you get Mel Brooks and Dave Chapelle as Rick James, which you should watch if you haven’t.

There’s no direct causal link between Al Jolson and Dave Chapelle; but they both reflect license blackface masquerade granted. Blackface was and is creepy and usually racist, but the creepiness had the quality of making things interesting and as with Chapelle, some interesting and troubling and funny stuff comes out if it.[1. I first saw the connection between Jolson and say, Journey from my friend John Pazdan. I’m basically making the same argument that Nick Tosches makes in Where Dead Voices Gather, his account of Emmett Miller. Toches version comes dressed in “I’m a bad boy rocker” clothes, while mine comes dressed in tweed, but it’s the same argument: nasty racial transgression has always been art and part of American musical life, and it’s always been one of the things that makes American musical life interesting. It’s an argument Ralph Ellison would recognize: good art has to unsettle.]

All the people quoted here are “good singers,” in that they have effective and distinctive voices, and they all reflect the minstrel tradition in different ways. If I had to pick just one of the tunes  listed here to take to a desert island, it’d be Armstrong singing Dinah. It’s smart, joyous, gleefully irreverent, thoughtfully aware but not self-consciousness. He likes what’s good about the song and entirely discards the minstrel status anxiety. His command of rhythm is astonishing. There’s nothing “cool” about the performance, but there’s lots that’s clever and accomplished.





  • Fascinating post as usual, Mike. But just to tease this out a bit: you come close to replacing the old idea that the roots of American popular music lie in African American traditions (blues, etc) with the notion that they actually lie in the minstrel show – in other words in white appropriations of black music. The irreverence, for example, is in blackface, not black culture. But then, you seem to stop short of that when you note that Jolson doesn’t swing like Armstrong. There, you sound like you’re falling back on the older argument – blackface is just a pale imitation of a rich culture. And contrasting Al Green with AC/DC would seem to reinscribe that racial logic.

    I buy both arguments, but they do seem to push in opposite directions, and I’m not sure how to resolve them.

  • You’re totally right and I don’t know how to resolve it either. I think the key is stressing that it’s all performance: nobody is doing anything but an act. Muddy Waters is an act, Howling wolf is an act, both made-up names and characters full of hokum. Louis Armstrong had an act: he said the key to his playing was first I plays the melody, then I plays the melody around the melody, and then I routines. It’s an act.

    The minstrel show makes the act overt, and in it’s overtness it lets people try different stuff. I bet it would be possible to trace the origins of swing directly to the minstrel show itself: the license to mess with the feel.

    It’d also be interesting to trace what black people did with minstrel tunes as opposed to what whites did, because minstrelsy would be granting them different kinds of license

  • Chester Burnette wrote:

    “ain’t no ‘musements, it just a good sound”

  • Chester Burnette wrote:

    ok ok…the discussion is about entertainment. Lately I am completely failing to see what entertainment (s) has to do with music. Except for James Brown, but there are (were) people with super human powers.

  • Chester! What was all that harp-licking and curtain climbing and howling then, if not entertainment?

    “howlin’ wolf” was Chester’s mask, but I suppose Chester was crazy enough that sometimes it wasn’t a mask

  • Chester Burnette wrote:

    well, you know, I was always striving to be #1 in the Blues Field..where ‘xactly does the cultural thang end..he asked with a straight mask.

  • A-1 reading, this. Thanks especially for the Emmet Miller link; I hadn’t heard him before. Also: I’m envisioning a tug-of-war smackdown between the brothers Hodges and Young, pushing and pulling the backbeat until the best men win.

  • Isn’t that amazing? That music understood as “white” should be based in white imitations of black people?

    Although it seems like such a bizarre idea of black people, based in fantasy

  • I appreciate your point that the primary defining characteristic of The Official Music of NASCAR (aside from the Polynesian guitar) was pioneered, in part, by white guys singing ugly burlesque distortions of “black.” I wonder though how much Jimmie Rogers was influenced by guys like Emmett Miller, and how much by the black, non-minstrel performers he knew. (Hank Williams learned “Lovesick Blues” from Miller’s record, but he had also spent hours at the knee of Rufus Payne.)

    Maybe it’s a pointless distinction. Like you said, every one of these performers is wearing a mask of one sort or another. And it seems to me that after sixty or seventy years of enthusiastic cross-pollination, the distinctions between black and white American popular music were pretty thoroughly mashed up by 1920, and it’s hard for me to tell (going strictly by their recordings) whether Bert Williams was singing more “white” than Emmett Miller was singing “black,” or to what extent either man was consciously engaged in racial parody by that point.

  • Tom King wrote:

    Interesting post. I can’t help but look at this and think that everyone, white and black, immediately understood the genius of this music. We see the blackface as grotesque and mocking, but perhaps it was a way to make this culture and race seem unthreatening and palatable to whites. I know that many jazz musicians starting in the 40s looked back at Armstrong and thought of him as something of an Uncle Tom, but his unthreatening approach had a co-optive power which defused racial tension by making black culture, not only less alien, but helped it to become a core and defining part of American culture. It reminds me of Joseph Nye’s ideas about soft power (co-optive as opposed to coercive “hard power”). The methods of soft power often seem weak and compromising, but those who oppose the ideas projected by it, often find themselves suddenly standing in a forest that was quietly planted around them.

  • […] It reminded me of “Mas­ter Juba,” born William Henry Lane, an african Amer­i­can dancer who fre­quently mim­iced famous white dancers. Juba would delib­er­ately copy the style of his rivals in pub­lic con­tests. The Wikipedia entry on Juba is excel­lent; his­to­rian James Cook has also writ­ten about him. Juba’s career and the Fal­lon clip are both exam­ples of  how jokes shift mean­ing. Ralph Elli­son described it as the way African Amer­i­can trick­sters “change the joke and slip the yoke.” It’s very much like the phe­nom­e­non Amy Wood describes in her book Lynch­ing and Spec­ta­cle. Pho­tographs of lynch­ings were aimed at a white audi­ence. When black news­pa­per and mag­a­zines pub­lished them, they changed the audi­ence and thereby the mean­ing of the pho­tographs. It’s what Dave Chapelle tried to do in his Rick James clip: change the joke and slip the yoke. […]

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